Freedom & rights cannot armour those who promote & incite violence| 15 notable excerpts on ‘hate speech’ from Supreme Court’s verdict in Amish Devgan case

Supreme Court: The bench of AM Khanwilkar and Sanjiv Khanna, JJ refused to quash the FIRs registered against News18 Journalist Amish Devgan for using the term “Lootera Chisti” in one of his shows but has granted interim protection to him against arrest subject to his joining and cooperating in investigation till completion of the investigation.

While holding this, the bench made an attempt to define “hate speech” albeit it was of the opinion that a universal definition of ‘hate speech’ remains difficult, except for one commonality that ‘incitement to violence’ is punishable.

Here are 15 notable excerpts from the judgment that runs to 128 pages:

  1. Criminality would not include insults to religion offered unwittingly, carelessly or without deliberate or malicious intent to outrage the religious feelings. Only aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetuated with deliberate and malicious intent to outrage the religious feelings of that group is punishable. [1]
  2. Criticism and comments on government’s action in howsoever strong words would not attract penal action as they would fall within the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.[2]
  3. Dissent and criticism of the elected government’s policy, when puissant, deceptive or even false would be ethically wrong, but would not invite penal action. Elected representatives in power have the right to respond and dispel suspicion. The ‘market place of ideas’ and ‘pursuit of truth’ principle are fully applicable. Government should be left out from adjudicating what is true or false, good or bad, valid or invalid as these aspects should be left for open discussion in the public domain. (…) Political speech relating to government policies requires greater protection for preservation and promotion of democracy. Falsity of the accusation would not be sufficient to constitute criminal offence of ‘hate speech’.

  4. Security of the State, public order and law and order represent three concentric circles: law and order being the widest, within which is the next circle representing public order and the smallest circle represents the security of the State. The phrase ‘security of the State’ is nothing less than endangering the foundations of the State or threatening its overthrow. It includes events that have national significance or upheavals, such as revolution, civil strife, war, affecting security of the State but excludes breaches of purely local significance. The phrase ‘minor breaches’ refers to public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest. The phrase ‘in the interest of…public order’, in the context of clause (2) to Article 19, would mean breaches of purely local significance, embracing a variety of conduct destroying or menacing public order.[3]
  5. A speech by ‘a person of influence’ such as a top government or executive functionary, opposition leader, political or social leader of following, or a credible anchor on a T.V. show carries a far more credibility and impact than a statement made by a common person on the street. (…)The reasonable-man’s test would always take into consideration the maker. (…) This is not to say that persons of influence like journalists do not enjoy the same freedom of speech and expression as other citizens, as this would be grossly incorrect understanding of what has been stated above. This is not to dilute satisfaction of the three elements, albeit to accept importance of ‘who’ when we examine ‘harm or impact element’ and in a given case even ‘intent’ and/or ‘content element’.

  6. The terms ‘public order’ and ‘public tranquillity’ do overlap to some extent but are not always synonymous as ‘public tranquillity’ is a much wider expression and it’s breach may even include things that cannot be described as public disorder. (…) For breach of public order, it is not necessary that the act should endanger the security of the State, which is a far stricter test, but would not include every kind of disturbance of society. Accepting that ‘law and order’ represents the largest circle within which is the next circle representing ‘public order’ and inside that the smallest circle representing the ‘security of the State’ is situated, it was observed that State is at the centre and the society surrounds it. Disturbances of society can fall under broad spectrum ranging from disturbance of serenity of life to jeopardy of the State. Therefore, the journey travels first through public tranquillity then through public order and lastly to the security of the State.[4]
  7. Public order would embrace more of the community than law and order. Public order refers to the even tempo of the life of the community taking the country as a whole or even a specified locality.[5] (…) The test which is to be examined in each case is whether the act would lead to disturbance of the current life of the community so as to amount to disturbance of public order, or does it affect merely an individual leaving the tranquillity of the society undisturbed. The latter is not covered under and restriction must meet the test of ordre publique affecting the community in the locality.

  8. Dignity is a part of the individual rights that form the fundamental fulcrum of collective harmony and interest of a society. While right to speech and expression is absolutely sacrosanct in the sense that it is essential for individual growth and progress of democracy which recognises voice of dissent, tolerance for discordant notes and acceptance of different voices, albeit the right to equality under Article 14 and right to dignity as a part of Article 21 have their own significance.[6]
  9. Individual dignity can be achieved in a regime which recognises equality with other citizens regardless of one’s religious beliefs or the group to which one belongs. Religious beliefs and faiths ensure wider acceptance of human dignity and liberty, but when conflict arises between the two, the quest for human dignity, liberty and equality must prevail.[7]

  10. Dignity of individual and unity and integrity of the nation are linked, one in the form of rights of individuals and other in the form of individual’s obligation to others to ensure unity and integrity of the nation. The unity and integrity of the nation cannot be overlooked and slighted, as the acts that ‘promote’ or are ‘likely’ to ‘promote’ divisiveness, alienation and schematism do directly and indirectly impinge on the diversity and pluralism, and when they are with the objective and intent to cause public disorder or to demean dignity of the targeted groups, they have to be dealt with as per law. The purpose is not to curtail right to expression and speech, albeit not gloss over specific egregious threats to public disorder and in particular the unity and integrity of the nation.
  11. To ensure maximisation of free speech and not create ‘free speaker’s burden’, the assessment should be from the perspective of the top of the reasonable member of the public, excluding and disregarding sensitive, emotional and atypical. (…) This does not mean exclusion of particular circumstances as frequently different persons acting reasonably will respond in different ways in the context and circumstances. This means taking into account peculiarities of the situation and occasion and whether the group is likely to get offended. At the same time, a tolerant society is entitled to expect tolerance as they are bound to extend to others.

  12. Freedom and rights cannot extend to create public disorder or armour those who challenge integrity and unity of the country or promote and incite violence. Without acceptable public order, freedom to speak and express is challenged and would get restricted for the common masses and law-abiding citizens. This invariably leads to State response and, therefore, those who indulge in promotion and incitement of violence to challenge unity and integrity of the nation or public disorder tend to trample upon liberty and freedom of others.
  13. Communities with a history of deprivation, oppression, and persecution may sometimes speak in relation to their lived experiences, resulting in the words and tone being harsher and more critical than usual. Their historical experience often comes to be accepted by the society as the rule, resulting in their words losing the gravity that they otherwise deserve. (…) Such speech should be viewed not from the position of a person of privilege or a community without such a historical experience, but rather, the courts should be more circumspect when penalising such speech. This is recognition of the denial of dignity in the past, and the effort should be reconciliatory.

  14. Loss of dignity and selfworth of the targeted group members contributes to disharmony amongst groups, erodes tolerance and open-mindedness which are a must for multi-cultural society committed to the idea of equality. It is however necessary that at least two groups or communities must be involved; merely referring to feelings of one community or group without any reference to any other community or group does not attract the ‘hate speech’ definition.
  15. There are multiple justifications for ‘tolerance’, which include respect for autonomy; a general commitment to pacifism; concern for other virtues such as kindness and generosity; pedagogical concerns; a desire for reciprocity; and a sense of modesty about one’s ability to judge the beliefs and actions of others. However, tolerance cannot be equated with appeasement, permissiveness, or indifference. It is also not identical to neutrality. Toleration requires self-consciousness and self-control in a sense that it is a restraint of negative judgment that is free and deliberate. It implies no lack of commitment to one’s own belief but rather it condemns oppression or persecution of others.

[Amish Devgan v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 994, decided on 07.12.2020]


*Justice Sanjiv Khanna has penned this judgment 

[1] Ramji Lal Modi v. State of UP, AIR 1957 SC 620

[2] Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955

[3] Superintendent, Central Prison, Fatehgarh v. Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, AIR 1960 SC 633

[4] Madhu Limaye v. Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Monghyr, (1970) 3 SCC 746

[5] Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, (2015) 5 SCC 1

[6] Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India, (2016) 7 SCC 221

[7] India Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, (2019) 11 SCC 1

Also read: SC refuses to quash FIRs for remarks on Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti but Amish Devgan not to be arrested pending investigation

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